In This Article Self-Fulfilling Prophecy And The Pygmalion Effect In Management

  • Introduction
  • Pygmalion in Management
  • Nonexperimental Pygmalion Research in Organizations
  • Leadership and Self-Efficacy: Key Mediators of the Pygmalion Effect
  • Reviews
  • Practical Application

Management Self-Fulfilling Prophecy And The Pygmalion Effect In Management
by
Dov Eden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0014

Introduction

Robert Rosenthal defined the Pygmalion effect as “the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy” (American Psychologist 58.3 [November 2003], p. 839). The Pygmalion phenomenon characterizes many leader-follower relationships. The “leader” can be a manager or supervisor, a military commander, an athletic coach, or an instructor. When leaders’ expectations of their followers’ are raised, they behave in ways that cause their followers, be they employees, soldiers, athletes, or trainees, to perform better. Pygmalion effects have been produced in schools, work organizations, armies, courtrooms, summer camps, and nursing homes, as well as in the practice of clinical psychologists and consultants. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s work Pygmalion in the Classroom (Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968, cited under Pygmalion in the Classroom) first demonstrated the Pygmalion effect experimentally in elementary school classrooms. Meta-analyses consistently confirm the classroom Pygmalion effect. Similarly, there is cumulative field-experimental support for the Pygmalion approach among adults in organizations and work settings, including factories, service organizations, banks, and military units. The Pygmalion effect is an interpersonal motivational phenomenon that begins with high leader expectations. Conveyed to followers orally or nonverbally via leader behavior, the leader’s high expectations augment the followers’ self-expectations and self-efficacy (i.e., their belief in their ability to perform better), boosting motivation and effort, and culminating in enhanced performance. Often, this improved performance reinforces the leader’s high expectations, thus extending an interpersonal exchange to an upward spiral of high expectations sparking high performance and justifying continued high expectations that produce still higher performance. In this way, self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) can become self-sustaining prophecy. However, SFP is a double-edge sword, in that it can be negative. Contrasted with the Pygmalion effect is the negative Golem effect, in which lowering manager expectations impairs subordinate performance—expect dumbbells and you will get dumbbells. Another type of SFP is the Galatea effect, in which the individual’s own high self-expectations become self-fulfilling. The appeal of the Pygmalion approach for management is rooted in its ability to boost performance based on a cost-free investment of managerial mindfulness and communication of high expectations. This implies a two-fold practical agenda: to raise productivity, managers must both implant high expectations and counteract any manifestations of contrary expectations. The essence of the Pygmalion effect is that managers get the workers they expect. Those who expect more, get more. The converse is true, too: those who expect less, get less. All managers can play a Pygmalion role by cultivating in themselves high expectations regarding their subordinates and by fostering in their subordinates high self-efficacy and high self-expectations. High expectations are too important to be left to chance; they should be built into manager-worker relationships and should be part of all managerial leadership training and development.

Origin and History of Pygmalion Research

The notion of self-fulfilling prophecy was born in sociology. Attempting to understand how society influences individuals, W. I. Thomas originated the notion of situations’ affecting individuals if individuals perceive those situations and respond to their own perceptions. This gave birth to Robert K. Merton’s concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy, which in turn inspired Robert Rosenthal’s theory and experimental work on the Pygmalion effect.

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